For many today, the Wars of the Roses is a term very loosely attached to the sporting rivalry between the current counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire, primarily on the cricket pitch, little realising that the term in fact applies to the civil war of very bloody proportions fought between the 15th century Houses of York and Lancaster and their adherents – a very different concept. For those who rely on the plays of William Shakespeare for their insight in to aspects of English history, despite the bard’s historical licence, it is the period covered by the trilogy of Henry VI which appears relatively dull in comparison with the better known, more dramatic works which relate to the deeds of Henry V and Richard III. For the student of history who seeks a concise, detailed and action packed narrative of that intervening period, this scholarly yet very readable account by David Santiuste is essential reading.
Whilst the major focus of the book, as the title indicates, is on Edward himself, his actions, character, motivation and relationships, the canvas is a much wider one, with much of the detail helping to put events in to context. The author’s interest in the battles themselves and the manner in which 15th century warfare is conducted is conveyed in the introductory chapter, which not only describes the weaponry involved but also the manner in which troops were recruited and how the armies were formed. This latter point is crucial in helping the reader fully to understand the implication of allegiance in a series of battles where it was not uncommon for loyalties to change, with a subsequent impact on the outcome.
The story is a fast moving one. Eight chapters divide the narrative and analysis in to very comprehensible sections, with the title to each chapter indicating the starting point. The link between the chapters is invariably a tantalising sentence which can only leave the reader wanting to discover more. Chapter 4 for example, the conclusion of which considers the question of a future alliance by marriage for Edward concludes with the words “But Warwick was soon to discover that there was a glaring impediment to the match: Edward was already married”. Similarly, chapter 5 which sees Edward enjoy considerable military success and power, ends with the very pithy: “There was only one way for Edward to survive: exile”.
The reasons for the outbreak of Wars of the Roses are handled succinctly and clearly. For the modern reader, probably more used to the concept of wars being fought for the reasons of territory, the issues of succession and influence are handled with admirable clarity. There is no denying that the relationships between families and factions are extremely complex. Edward’s relationship with Warwick, “the Kingmaker” dominates much of the action and the influence of the Neville family on events must not be overlooked. The table “York and Lancaster: The English Royal Family in the Later Middle Ages” is essential to an understanding of lineage, allegiance and relationships. Given the dramatic nature of the content and the complex question of loyalties, perhaps for ease of reference the work might have benefited further the understanding of the amateur historian by the inclusion of a list of the key “dramatis personae”, with a brief description of key rôles, family links and allegiance, with changes where appropriate. The “cast list” is extensive and the narrative helps to put in context those who will have a determining influence on future events, such as Richard, Duke of Gloucester and the Tudor family.
The author’s interest in the battles themselves is self-evident. For example, two of the most significant, Towton and Tewkesbury, not only warrant maps of the battle sites but provide much detailed explanation of the preceding troop movements and the ebb and flow of the battles themselves. The descriptions are extensive and graphic, sufficient to encourage this reviewer to re-visit the battle sites concerned. Some of the other battles which would appear to have been more straightforward receive much less space.
For example, despite having an impact on events, the Battle of Wakefield where Edward’s father, Richard Duke of York was killed, but where deception and trickery would appear to have had a much greater impact, is very briefly described.
This account is extensively and authoritatively researched with a highly detailed bibliography. The result is a work of very considerable appeal, both to the knowledgeable student of the period and to the amateur. Whilst the author is sympathetic towards Edward, he appears objective in his assessment, not omitting actions where Edward might appear not to have lived up to the chivalric ideal. If evidence from sources is conflicting, the author suggests his own interpretation but also allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusion.
In short, this work is a “must read” for those who would wish to widen their knowledge of a period of English history, dominated by a civil war, but which lasted considerably longer than the Civil War of the 17th century and which included the bloodiest battle fought on English soil – Towton.
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