Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Wars of the Roses, by Alison Weir

5 stars

Well that was fan-FLIPPING-TASTIC! I've just received over 400 pages of the most vivid, fascinating and comprehensive education on the Wars of the Roses at the hands of Alison Weir, that cleared up one of my big misconceptions (I was under the impression that the Yorks were the usurpers, but nooo!) and well and truly plugged the big gaping hole that formed my knowledge of one of the most turbulent times to ever rock the English Crown. And due to the way in which it was delivered - playing up the many personalities that made up the squabbling noble factions concerned (including a wealth of deeply interesting and formidable women, about whom I'd love to learn more) and reading far more like a deadly thriller than a history book, I could easily cane those pages all over again. I'm already looking forward to starting The Princes in the Tower as soon as I possibly can before going on an Alison Weir themed spending/lending splurge.

So, what did I learn? If you don’t have the time or the inclination to read 400 pages, then read on for my…ahem “summary” of events (this could take some time, so settle in).


Lasting more than thirty years, the Wars of the Roses were actually two wars - the first between Lancaster and York which spanned around 16 years, and a later, much shorter war between York and Tudor that resulted in the birth of one of the most successful dynasties to have ever ruled. The roots of all this trouble are traced here back to the rule of Edward III and his many heirs. Old Ed was a rather fertile man, having 13 children (not an unusually high number for the time) including five sons that grew to maturity. Marrying them off to heiresses, Ed would create the first ever English dukedoms for them, thereby also creating the 'magnates' who made up English nobility and were related to the royal line by blood, whose descendants would go on to cause the deaths of thousands in their fights for the Crown.

Ed's eldest son, The Black Prince, would die before Ed himself leaving his 9 year old son Richard as Ed's heir. Richard II wouldn't be a particularly brilliant king, as having been crowned at such a young age he'd had a long time in which to become incredibly self-important, extravagant and ostentatious while also being unstable and bearing grudges against any who dared criticise him (apparently even once having to be physically restrained from running the Archbishop of Canterbury through with a sword). Politically clumsy, he lavished honours, lands and wealth on his favourites, particularly one Robert de Vere (who was suspected of being his lover), dismaying many nobles - particularly Henry of Bolingbroke, Richard's cousin and the eldest son of old Ed III's third son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

Henry allied himself in opposition to the King's favourites and soon found himself exiled by the increasingly tyrannical Richard. Not stopping there, on the death of Henry's fabulously wealthy father Richard would also decide to allocate that inheritance to himself, pissing Henry off enormously and setting the stage for a confrontation. Returning to England and immediately setting about removing as many of Richard's advisors heads as possible while Richard's soldiers got busy deserting, Henry would soon take Richard prisoner and torture him into abdicating the throne and, conveniently forgetting the heirs of old Ed III's second son, Lionel (through which the York's would later have the better claim to the throne), be proclaimed King Henry IV, setting the dangerous precedent whereby pesky laws of succession wouldn't matter half so much as whoever could win a scrap (with most believing that winning a battle meant God wanted you to be King).

Henry soon discovered that seizing a throne wasn't half as hard as holding onto the bloody thing and his reign was dogged by constant tensions and rebellions, and certainly wasn't helped by the murder...sorry, 'voluntary starvation' of Richard who would become far more popular in death than he ever was in life. By the time the many rebellions had been put down in the latter part of his rule, Henry was suffering from increasing ill health and eventually collapsed and died while on a visit to Westminster Abbey. Surprisingly, given all of the rebellions against his father, his eldest son Henry of Monmouth would succeed him unchallenged to the throne.

Long fawned over by historians for being a great medieval king (i.e. he burnt lots of heretics and was extremely a particularly ruthless and brutal killer on the battlefield, especially of the French, which made him wildly popular with the English of the time) Henry V would also see a few rebellions along the same lines of those against his father, but as well as being extremely good at putting these down (and putting people off having any other rebellious ideas by chaining up and slowly roasting those who did) by this point people had become used to the Lancaster dynasty and didn't feel much inclined towards a change. Until he died, leaving behind a depleted treasury (having dragged the crown into bankruptcy through the long war with France), a bunch of nobles squabbling over whether the war should be continued, and a nine month old heir.

To govern through Henry VI's minority (childhood) a regency government was established in the form of a Council dominated by his squabbling uncles, the Dukes of Gloucester and Bedford. Meanwhile, Lionel's heir the Earl of March dies leaving his vast inheritance (and better claim to the throne) to his nephew Richard, also known as the Duke of York. This inheritance is initially 'sequestered' (i.e. nicked) by the crown, but he's allowed it back when he reaches his majority - for a hefty fee, of course. He's not, however, allowed a place on the Council due to the potential threat he poses to the throne and is instead placed firmly out of the way overseeing English affairs in France which aren't going too well, the French having rejected the treaty which entitled Henry VI to their throne. He'll have to finance this himself, despite promises of the crown meeting his expenses (sounds just like work now!), an early showing of the sort of treatment seemingly designed to provoke and insult him as much as possible - not the sort of behaviour that keeps a powerful potential threat on-side.

On reaching 16, Henry declares himself of age and takes finally takes control of the crown, and immediately shows himself to be spectacularly unsuited to kingship. Weak and inexperienced, naive and gullible, Henry's excessive generosity to his relatives and the many grasping and self-interested nobles surrounding him combined with his inability to stand up to anyone, his excessive piety and his mental instability to weaken him even further. Probably inherited from his mother, Katherine of Valois (daughter of the mad French king Charles VI, there's easily another book that I'd love to read on Katherine's life alone), from early manhood Henry suffered from depressive episodes, sometimes even lapsing into catatonic states. Not only inept when ruling, Henry was often therefore also completely incapable of it.

Despite being little better than a monk when it came to women, Henry married Margaret of Anjou (who made up in beauty and formidability what she lacked in a dowry) and quickly made the situation much worse. Already despised for being French (and for Henry secretly agreeing to give away lands in France in exchange for her hand) Margaret would soon be making most of her husband's decisions for him as he retreated further into his own world of prayer and meditation. Which wouldn't have been quite so bad if she hadn't completely misunderstood (or not given a shit about) the many prejudices of the English and frequently given their enemies advantageous deals, while also being rather corrupt and lavishly rewarding her highly unpopular favourites while insulting those like the Duke of York, who'd effectively beggared himself for the English cause in France only to see the money and reinforcements he was owed being diverted to the incompetent and the grasping. Yet more dukedoms are created for favourites, rivalry between court factions becomes ever more intense, and law and order declines as a blind eye is turned to misbehaving nobles doing whatever they want and people critical of the King's policies, like the Duke of Gloucester, are murdered...sorry, 'die of natural causes' (which were probably being smothered between mattresses).

Eventually, York has had enough and returns to England set on getting the king separated from his awful advisors. Having married Cecily Neville, his thirteen children (which include Edward, George and Richard, later to become famous themselves) are descended thrice over from Ed III, illustrating just how inbred the whole nobility was while also resulting in a much better claim to the throne than Henry's, but for now York is simply eager to reform the regime and promotes himself as a champion of good government, gaining himself much popularity amongst the commons and the enmity of Margaret who treats him more and more like an enemy, eventually succeeding in making him one.

Having become bankrupt, the crown now finds Parliament unwilling to raise any more taxes to pay their debts and fund the ongoing war with France (especially if Henry is busy secretly giving much of what was won back again) and rebellions start to spring up. While proclaiming all traitors will be arrested, Henry flees for Greenwich leaving the Bishop of Salisbury and various other hated nobles to be hacked apart by the people, although Henry's troops will eventually prevail (though not before many of them have also mutinied and run riot through London). A furious York initially evades armed forces sent to arrest him and confronts a terrified Henry in his apartment, who placates him with a position on his Council. But refusing to learn from his mistakes, Henry (Margaret) immediately gets back to losing yet more lands in France and promoting his (her) cronies into positions of power and influence. York prevails, however, when the King lapses into another catatonic state during which Prince Edward is born. Influenced by York, the Council decide they won't recognise him as heir unless Henry - currently completely incapable of doing so - recognises him first and the first of many insinuations is made as to Edward's paternity. A regency government is clearly needed, for which Margaret makes a determined bid but is beaten by York, who is elected by Parliament as Protector of the Realm.

The first thing he does is to order the Queen to withdraw to Windsor which she's not then allowed to leave, before deposing and ordering the arrest of some of her most corrupt favourites and starting to sort out the Crown's finances. At which point Henry promptly recovers and immediately returns everything to the way it was, prompting a backlash against York and his supporters. While the Queen busily whips up Lancastrian support and intercepts York's letters to the king protesting his loyalty, York ignores a royal summons and with his allies Salisbury and Warwick (one of the most wealthy and powerful men in the land) whips up an army and marches to London. The war is on.

The Battle of St Albans resulted in hundreds of deaths and even Henry (who would spend battles sat on his horse under his banner, watching from a distance) getting an arrow in the neck. While he'd survived, the resounding York victory meant that while he was assured by York of his continued loyalty, his apparent subsequent breakdown would see York once again effectively ruling England and for the next few years York and the Queen would vie for control of the King, with York instituting reforms and recovering crown lands that had been given away to favourites only for them to be repealed and returned whenever Margaret had the reins. 

Until the Queen tries to have York's powerful and charismatic ally Warwick murdered, raising tensions and armies. The Yorkists respond with a propaganda campaign, accusing her of tyranny and once again calling into question the paternity of Prince Edward, and there’s an armed confrontation during which York's men are overawed at the sight of the tens of thousands arrayed against them and desert, leaving York and his allies to flee to Calais. With her enemies out of the way in France, Margaret returns to ruling in whichever way she sees fit - which is badly. An English public grown sick of Lancastrian misrule prove highly receptive to the propaganda still being spread, clearing the way for a Yorkist invasion which is given a warm welcome in the cities they travel through (though this is hardly surprising, as it seems most of the commons would cheer for whoever came through their city heavily armed, rather than getting stabbed). 

Another battle, notable for the treachery of nobles switching sides part way through, would result in another York victory and Queen Margaret fleeing to Scotland while Henry is captured. This time though, York would submit the genealogy showing his better claim to Parliament and an Act of Accord is passed naming him heir apparent to the throne and Protector of England. An enraged Margaret raises another army and even invites a foreign one to join her (England's hated neighbours, the Scots), scoring a victory with the deaths of York and his eldest son Edmund in the midst of a battle, their bodies mutilated and their decapitated heads adorned with paper crowns. 

Her triumph wouldn't last long however, as York's claim to the throne had now passed to his eldest remaining son, Edward, who would score a resounding victory at the subsequent and spectacularly bloody Battle of Mortimer’s Cross. The Queen's retreating army robbed, raped and burned their way back across the country with so many atrocities being reported that even staunch Lancastrians start to switch sides, before surprising Warwick at St Albans, killing another few thousand and rescuing Henry from under guard. Meanwhile, Edward races to London where he receives a rapturous welcome (naturally, he is at the head of an army after all), is proclaimed King Edward IV and hailed as the restoration of the true royal line.

It's not a done deal yet though, and with Margaret and her army still haunting the north Edward's army meets the Lancastrians in battle once more. This time the combined armies would number around 2 per cent of the English population at the time, and the resulting Battle of Towton would be the longest, largest and most important battle in the Wars of the Roses. Taking place in the middle of a thick blizzard (and brilliantly recreated in the book), the battle would end with the Lancasters fleeing back to Scotland and as many as 40,000 dead, the ground stained with so much gore that the battleground would shortly become known as The Bloody Meadow.

Now firmly ensconced on the throne, Ed proves to be a much firmer ruler than Henry had been, overhauling and reforming the Council and putting down the continued raids of the Lancasters. When not dealing with matters of state Ed gives himself over to pleasure, becoming notorious for seducing and then abandoning young ladies and presiding over an extravagant court, but powerful marriage alliances between France or Burgundy are scuppered when it turns out he's secretly married a commoner - Elizabeth Wydville, a Lancastrian widow and former lady-in-waiting to Margaret. Having cannily refused to become the love-struck Ed's mistress, the ambitious and greedy Liz wasted no time in promoting her entire family into positions and marriages of wealth and influence, setting up a whole new wave of jealousy between court factions. Meanwhile Margaret, having worn out her welcome with the Scots, starts intriguing with the French while Henry is captured once again and taken to London Tower. It's at around this time that the powerful (and power-hungry) Warwick, having been alienated from Ed by the rapid promotion of the Wydvilles, starts plotting with Ed's equally ambitious brother George to depose Ed and put George on the throne. The old troubles start again as feuding factions, high taxation and the corrupt practices of York favourites lead to outbreaks of violence and frequent uprisings, before Warwick announces his intentions to save the king from evil influence and promptly gives the royal army a royal kicking.

Warwick takes Ed prisoner and attempts to rule in his name, although he's roundly ignored by everyone and soon has no choice but to free him once more. Warwick won't be put off though, and through the intercession of King Louis in France switches his allegiance to the Lancasters. Another invasion is launched.

Once again the invaders find themselves welcomed with open arms by the people of the cities they ride through (that’ll be those swords again) and their forces soon swell to nearly 60,000 men, including many of Ed's deserting army, and Ed has no choice but to flee for Calais. Henry is liberated and restored to the throne, although he's now little more than Warwick's puppet. Another massive army is raised when Ed returns to England and more scraps ensue, resulting in another race to London for the winner to be proclaimed king. Ed gets there first, where Henry is handed over to him by the Archbishop, and then he's off to confront Warwick again who still has an army three times larger, complete with newly invented handguns. They don't matter much though as in the midst of the confusion of battle Warwick's own troops start mistakenly attacking one another, and Warwick is killed while attempting to flee.

With barely any time to rest, Ed is soon facing off against another army - Margaret's (in which the now of age Prince Edward, Henry's son, is seeing active service for the first time). This battle will see Prince Edward dying along with the hopes of the House of Lancaster, with the finishing touch delivered via the murder…sorry, ‘dying of excessive melancholy’ of Henry in the Tower (probably at the hands of Ed's brother Richard). And with that the Wars of the Roses was finally brought to a close, leaving the Lancaster dynasty shattered, thousands of men dead (Margaret herself would eventually die in great poverty in France) and a great many fortunes vanished. Edward would rule over England for a few more years, before his sudden death left his two young sons at the mercies of their Uncle Richard. 

But that's a whole other book…

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