A.L. Rowse,
Bosworth Field &
the Wars of the Roses

(Panther, 1968)

To those of us in the English-speaking world, the 15th century in England is the picture we have of the High Middle Ages: brave deeds, dark plots, pageantry, knights in shining armor battling before turreted castles, "Once more into the breach, dear friends" and "My kingdom for a horse!" It is the time of Lancaster and York, Hotspur, Prince Hal and Falstaff, the period of the Wars of the Roses. It is an age that the British historian A.L. Rowse has brought to colorful -- and sometimes breathtaking -- life.

Although the Wars of the Roses, strictly put, refers to a period at the latter end of the English dynastic struggles of the 15th century, the story begins with the Revolution of 1399, when Henry of Lancaster, Shakespeare's Bolingbroke, took the throne from his cousin Richard II, by all accounts a thoroughly unsatisfactory king. Of importance here, the principle that made Henry's usurpation of the throne possible, is the nature of kingship in the Middle Ages, which, as Rowse points out, meant not only good government -- which Richard did not provide -- but also was the single most important binding force in medieval society: the king, God's annointed, was the center from which everything else took its measure, and when the monarchy was stable, then the country was stable. Although Henry IV's accession was usurpation, it was usurpation at the will of the nation, which is to say the magnates, the Church, the Parliament, all those institutions by which the nation expressed itself, to repair the arbitrary characer of Richard's rule. And so the Lancastrian line of the descendants of Edward III, who was, perhaps unfortunately, among the more fecund of English kings, remained on the throne with the blessing of society at large until the reign of Henry VI.

It becomes useful at this point to know the bloodlines, because they provided one of the bases for the controversy. Richard II was the heir of the senior line of the House of Plantagenet through his father, Edward, the Black Prince, first son of Edward III. His cousin Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, was descended from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Edward's third son. The house of York, which later produced Edward IV, the brief Edward V and Richard III, was descended from Lionel, Duke of Clarence, Edward's second son, through his daughter Philippa on the one hand, and from Edmund Langley, Duke of York, Edward's fourth son, through the male line. If that isn't complicated enough, one reason the century wreaked such carnage on the great houses of England is that by the time of Henry VI, most of the nobility of England was either descended from or married to descendants of Edward III, and thus politics allied to family ties brought almost everyone who was anyone into the wars on one side or the other. (To one who has long been a fan of the Tudor era, it is interesting to note how many family names all but disappear from the histories -- the Mortimers, Percys, Courtenays, Nevilles -- to be replaced by new names that come to prominence at the end of the century -- the Howards, Staffords, Bourchiers, Boleyns.)

In the reign of poor, mad, sickly Henry VI, then, England was presented with much the same quandary that had precipitated the Revolution of 1399: bad government and an unstable monarchy (and monarch). The counter to the failing Lancastrian line (although failing only in competence, not in numbers) was the line of the Yorkists in the person of Richard, Duke of York, descended, through the marriage of Anne Mortimer to Richard, Earl of Cambridge, from two of the notoriously fertile Edward III's sons and offering strong leadership. He was opposed by Margaret of Anjou, Henry's queen, of whom Rowse points out, "the Lancastrian party would hardly have kept going but for her fighting spirit; on the other hand, but for her it would not have been reduced to being a party." Margaret was not the most farsighted nor politically astute of consorts. Although Richard died before taking the throne, his son became Edward IV, succeeded briefly by the boy Edward V, most likely murdered by his uncle, who became Richard III and, whether through ambition or incompetence (although the latter, given Richard's record, does not seem likely), imposed a tyranny that led, once again, to rebellion.

The upshot of it all was that the Lancastrians, in the person of Henry Tudor, later Henry VII, took the throne from Richard III at Bosworth, one of the turning points of English history, cementing their occupation by the marriage of Henry to Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and sister to the murdered Edward V.

There seems to be a certain group of English scholars, particularly historians, who are not only amazingly erudite but are also master stylists. Rowse is one of them. He has presented a complex period of English history with clarity and precision, in a style that is vivid and fresh, with flashes of acerbic wit that bring the personalities, on which so much depended, truly alive. His thesis, that Bosworth and the reign of Richard III were turning points in English history, is set solidly into the account: without Richard's disastrous tyranny, there would have been no Henry VIII, no Elizabeth I, and the English Renaissance would have had a fundamentally different character. Rowse also refers frequently to the reaction of the English commons to the events of the period and devotes a chapter to the impact of the last days of the Plantagenets on Tudor writers, with an additional chapter on Shakespeare's dazzling histories. One caveat, and it is not something that can be laid at Rowse's door: apparently, the number of names allowed in the English upperclasses was severely limited, so that one must be careful, for example when reading about Edmund Mortimer that one is at least in the right generation, and that references to King Henry have the appropriate numeral attached. In spite of the complexity of events and the daunting cast of players, Rowse, leaving his own speciality of Tudor history, has presented a lucid, scholarly and eminently readable account of one of the key periods in the history of the English.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 11 September 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.