The Wars of the Roses
© 1996 Alison Weir
The wars of the roses sounds like a gardening contest run amok, but no genteel horticulturists were involved. The strange appellation refers to a series of dynastic crises in 15th century England, punctuated by mass violence, which leave one dubious about the merits of hereditary monarchy. The “war” was never declared, and rarely prolonged: at most there were some sixteen weeks of fighting throughout the span of several English kings. The version of this history I remember faintly from schoolboy days is that the wars erupted near the end of the Hundred Years War and ended with the rise of the Tudors. As Alison Weir’s much more thorough political history indicates, however, the succession crises hastened the end of the English in France by keeping them busy bloodying the fields at home.
The story begins with a despot, Richard II, who ruled so badly that the peers of the realm revolted several times before one of his cousins decided to assume command of the family business, throwing dear Rich in prison and leaving him to die. (Not that killing him did any good, as the new king would be bothered with Elvis-like reports of the ousted monarch surfacing and raising an army for decades thereafter.),A loyal opposition being completely alienated and threatened with violence before taking preemptive action and deposing the monarch turns out to be a recurring theme in this narrative. The new king, Henry IV, would die an early death, weakened by constant resistance and rebellion to his reign. His boy Harry was a godsend for the family, achieving a magnificent victory at Agincourt and eventually humbling the French before dying of dysentary. It is during the reign of his son, Henry VI, that the wars truly take flower. Little Henry was a baby, and infants are notoriously bad at political decisions: the rule of England was left to politicking peers, and their divisive bickering would continue to hold sway long after the king had reached his majority. Throughout his reign, Harry’s dismal successor would be dominated either by the nobles or his wife — a charming princess of Anjou who ruled as though she were the Queen of France. She might have made a superb French monarch were she not in England, surrounded by men who failed to appreciate being told what to do by a haughty French woman. Even worse, the king began to have spells of insanity. As court bickering and royal bungling saw England sink into financial destitution and lose all of its continental territory, one previously faithful servant decided enough was enough. The king was a catastrophe, even when he was lucid — he had to go.
When Richard II was made to abdicate his throne, he had an heir apparent — one who was completely ignored by Henry IV’s ambition, and almost forgotten. His heirs knew who they were, however, and one was Richard, Duke of York, sometimes-Lord Protector of England during Henry VI’s less-sane periods. The “sometimes” is crucial, because the duke was frequently on the outs with the Queen’s court party, and where the queen was concerned being on the out sometimes meant that you vanished at sea until someone stumbled upon your beached corpse. Rather than falling to that fate during one especially hairy period, York took up arms against his sea of troubles and things get deucedly interesting. In the turmoil that followed, eventually the Sorry Sixth and his French bride would be run off, and York’s son Edward crowned king. But the story only picks up from there, for he too would be undermined by his wife — a common woman he became obsessed about. Not only did he marry her in private and then surprise the court with her, but he insisted on inserting her family into English politics, arranging marriages between her kin and the peers’. This caused a great deal of aggravation and a great many bloody battles.
At the book’s height, things are gloriously complicated. One king, Henry, is in prison, and his wife exiled to France. Their existence is a fixation for intrigue by the kings of France and Burgundy, who are delighted to be able to meddle in English politics: after all, the English virtually annexed France by manipulating their own succession crises between the Dukes of Orleans and Burgundy for the French throne. Turnabout is fair play. Despite needing to consolidate his newly-taken hold over English affairs, Edward instead weakens his position by alienating the faithful men who supported him in ousting out the former queen, and in desperation some consider overturning their late friend-turned-king and sticking Henry back on. All this scheming is creates an edge-of-the-seat drama, even when Weir sometimes makes the multiplicity of Henrys worse by referring to “the king” generically when there’s several kings running about. She draws the tale to an end before the ascension of the Tudors, but the afterword indicates the complete stupidity of everything that has preceded. After all that bloodshed and mental energy exhausted, the silly ass who prevails in the end dies soon thereafter, followed by yet another monster. One of the early battles, Towton, consumed so many lives that it was proportionately worse than even the Battle of the Somme.
Weir succeeds in creating order, and a riveting story, out of a thicket of English politics. It’s information-dense, but her hand keeps it from being overwhelming.