Day 89: The Wars of the Roses

Cover for The Wars of the RosesThe Wars of the Roses were a series of complex events involving numerous significant figures. As such, when I have previously read about them, I’ve found it confusing to keep track of events and people.

In The Wars of the Roses: Through the Lives of Five Men and Women of the Fifteenth Century, Desmond Seward presents the clearest and most interesting explication I have read. He organizes the material and infuses interest by following the effects of the wars on five people–William Hastings, Edward IV’s best friend and one of the most powerful men in the realm during his (Yorkist) reign; John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, head of an ancient family and a loyal Lancastrian; Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor’s mother; Dr. John Morton, a loyal Lancastrian clergyman who turned Yorkist; and Jane Shore, mistress of Edward IV and daughter of a successful London businessman.

A series of battles between rival factions of the Plantagenet family for the throne, the Wars of the Roses lasted 32 years. The roots of the dispute lay in Henry IV’s usurpation of the crown from Richard II years before. Henry IV and his son, Henry V, were strong rulers, but Henry V’s heir, Henry VI, succeeded at the age of 15. He proved a weak and ineffective ruler who was dominated by his favorites and his wife’s rapacious relatives. Henry also managed to lose the portion of France that his father had so arduously and expensively won back, and England’s state of law and order had almost completely broken down.

The shift in government began when Henry VI had a son who replaced Edward Duke of York (later to be Edward IV) as heir to the throne. This made Edward’s position precarious and he had to flee to Europe. His subsequent battles against Henry’s adherents were only the beginning of years of instability that resulted in the end of the Plantagenet dynasty and the beginning of that of the Tudors.

History can be written with too much detail or in a too academic and dry style, or it can be so lightly researched as to seem like fluff. Seward hits the perfect balance with a terrifically interesting book that is wonderfully well written.

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