I’ve read a couple of histories by Desmond Seward now, one of which, The Wars of the Roses, did a much better job of explaining the complications of those wars than any other book I’ve read. In The Last White Rose, Seward details the attempts by the first two Tudor kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII, to wipe out the Plantagenet line.
Real or imagined conspiracies against the Tudors haunted the reigns of both these kings. At first, those conspiracies that actually existed had their roots in Henry VII’s very tenuous claim on the throne. There were still plenty of Yorkists around, and some of them had much better claims. It was Henry VII’s knowledge of these plots that led him to construct a complex web of spies for the state. Later, his growing paranoia led him to execute young Warwick, whose only crime was his birth.
Although Henry VIII continued his father’s policy of stamping out conspiracies, as he grew older and more erratic, he conducted a reign of terror. Courtiers were charged for slight errors or none at all. Henry succeeded in killing off almost every person with Plantagenet blood. His paranoia was manipulated by Thomas Cromwell, who invented conspiracies to rid himself or Henry of enemies.
Seward could be writing novels, his style is so easy to read and interesting. Although he introduces many players, he is somehow able to interest readers in all their fates. I found this another fascinating book about this period.
The Wars of the Roses
Richard III: England’s Black Legend
Historian Desmond Seward explains in the introduction of Richard III that there are two views of Richard. He calls them the black legend—the traditional view—and the white legend—the notion that Richard’s reputation was blackened by the Tudors after Bosworth Field. This theory was first put forward by Horace Walpole in the 18th century and is famously supported by Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. The Richard III Society has even claimed that Richard was not a hunchback, which claim was proved false by the recent discovery of his bones.
Seward’s view is that of the black legend, that Richard was a ruthless man who committed many dark deeds, including killing the princes in the Tower. Richard III is an interesting biography of Richard, based on what is known of his life. There are few of his own writings to base it on, unfortunately, because Richard was not much of a writer, a situation common to nobility of his time.
Of course, Richard’s entire life was lived during the turbulent period of the Wars of the Roses. England experienced little peace during this period, and what little there was occurred during the reign of Edward IV, Richard’s older brother. This peace was marred mostly by the rapacious behavior of the Woodvilles, Edward’s in-laws, and that of the Duke of Clarence, his erratic brother. However, that peace was destroyed by Edward’s early death, which plunged the country into another succession crisis because the prince was only 12 or 13 years old. The last time a young prince had become king, Henry VI, was disastrous for the country.
My own impression from reading this book is that Seward invariably looks at the darkest interpretation of events. I guess you could call me of the dark gray school. Certainly, the murders of the princes in the Tower was a shocking event, viewed with horror during its time and since, and there seems little doubt that Richard ordered the murders. Still, the situation for Richard was difficult. In doing his duty by his nephew, he faced the prospect of at least six years of an unstable regime with continual battles for power with the Woodvilles. This is not to excuse his actions, but it is possible to view them as an attempt to maintain stability in the realm, and that’s probably how he explained them to himself. Instead, the result was to almost completely exterminate the Plantagenet family.
The Wars of the Roses
A Folly of Princes
The 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.