The Wars Of The Roses: England’s First Civil War By Trevor Royle

Royle provides a total overview of the conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster in the 13th and 14th centuries, from the abdication of Richard II in 1399, to the aftermath of Bosworth Field in 1485. His focus is primarily on political events and the most important players, with the rest going to military matters and a smattering of cultural and social commentary of the period in question.

Royle’s narrative is well-written and trips along nicely with a large number of shorter chapters (always my preferred method of reading). Dedicating a handful of such chapters to each King in the period, it never gets too bogged down on one section or another. The myriad list of figures with similar names and titles never gets too confusing (a well written list of those figures in the end pages helps a lot) and regardless, Royle is important to focus only on those most important to the overall course of events.

Of course, that is also the books biggest flaw, in that you fly through most of the war very quickly. There is a distinct lack of specific detail for many things, largely due to the fast pace of the book. Battles, revolts, Kings and their enemies fly by in a few pages, and you may have a hard time keeping up with the general speed of events. The jacket’s recommendation from The Times calls the book “a fine expansive drama” and it is almost the impression of a HBO series that you get, from the way Royle chooses to focus on the critical individuals and their relationships to each other.

Battles especially are covered very lightly. This book is no military history, which is certainly a negative because it is a history book about a war. Royle takes little time to discuss the issues of strategy, tactics or military evolution beyond a shallow understanding. The books main theme is on political change after all, and the actual battles and warfare of the War of the Roses suffer for it. Far more time is handed over to the moving of armies from place to place then the actual battles that they fought. This is especially bad, considering the stuff that Royale chooses to (unnecessarily in my opinion) cover in detail.

Most obviously, Royle starts way too early, with the reign of Richard II, going on to give us a comprehensive review of every major event in England, Burgandy and France from that time. As such, there is a remarkable amount of pages, over 200 (of 436), before the War of the Roses actually begins at St Albans. Background is necessary for any sort of war study of course, but Royle is stretching himself if he truly believes that a blow-by-blow account of Henry V’s campaigns in France is actually required in a history of the War of the Roses. The time taken to expand upon these topics could easily have been used to discuss in more detail the actual events of the books title, especially military matters.

All that aside, Royle’s account has informed me of several things concerning the wars that I had not previously considered. I picked up the book because I had a flight of fancy for the period, it being something I have never properly understood beyond the work of Shakespeare (which Royle goes to lengths to criticise for its influence on the historical record, rightly).

Firstly, is the cyclical nature of the entire affair. One might criticise Royle for a narrative that seems to be saying the same thing over and over again, but that is simply how it appears to have turned out: a series of newly-crowned Kings, challenged by a pretender (usually based abroad), who entered Britain or raised the red flag, succeeded or failed in gaining the necessary support, marched on London, was killed or took over, as King or as the controller of the King. That general series of events seems to have happened over and over, and if Royle’s book has done nothing else, it has made the point that the War of the Roses was not a singular conflict, but a series of uprisings, some succeeding, most failing, spread out across decades, that finally ended with the success of the last one, that of Henry Tudor, an exile who invaded from abroad, gained the support of nobles, killed Richard III, and named himself King with a very tenuous claim, something that had already happened before in the same conflict.

Regarding Richard III, Royle is to be complimented for a neutral, unbiased discussion of the man and his alleged evils. Richard III is a strangely abused figure in history, thanks largely to Shakespeare, but Royle takes a look at the man for the deeds we are sure he committed, and covers the rather infamous one that he is accused of – the murder of the “Princes in the tower” – with a cold eye, discussing only facts and pointing out inaccuracies and flaws in traditional proofs and finger-pointing. The overall impression is of a man who was no more evil or vicious than the times demanded, but who more than likely ordered the deaths of his nephews. Proof as ever, is lacking and Royle passes no judgement.

Also of interest is Royle’s critique of early battles, limited as they are, which concludes that many of them were barely deserving of the term, being little more than street brawls with a higher than expected body count. That is something you certainly do not expect to be reading, how these armies, portrayed often as noble and chivalrous, fought their fights in the streets and back alleys of small towns, with a crudeness more akin to football hooligans. Not all battles were that way of course, and the one time that Royle captures the imagination of the reader relating to warfare is his description of the bloody battle of Towton.

Royle frames the War of the Roses as a major turning point in British history, especially with the monarchy. In that regard, the period would seem to my eyes to be a continuing series of denigrations done to the office, one that is ultimately shorn of any links to divine right. Nobles and armies killed and murdered over it, abused sitting Kings, made wild claims, dressed up peasants as pretenders, and all for gaining control of the throne itself, just so they could suffer the same fate. Only the arrival on the scene of a more tyrannical claimant in Henry Tudor ended this decline and restored some semblance of respect and responsibility and even his claim to the throne was near laughable, from Royle’s account. If anything marks the end of the “divine right” of monarchs in English history, it must be the sad case of a mentally damaged Henry VI, his final days reduced to being nothing more than a mindless political puppet, tossed back and forth between rival factions too cowardly to simply kill him off (when doing so might have been beneficial to the overall stability of the country).

And then there is the odd propaganda war. Royle makes brief mentions of things like printing presses and other advances, but his suggested elaboration of these points beyond the introduction are disappointing and thin. What interested me was the messages that rebellious nobles, at least in the first half of the wars, sent the way of peasants and the like: No, they weren’t rebelling against the King, just his terrible advisors. This quasi respect for the King comes off, from Royle’s narrative, as underhanded and unbelievable as it might sound, especially given the weak-brained state of Henry VI for most of his life. Rebels had no choice but to make war on his advisors and protectors, they could hardly make war on a simpleton. The lip service paid to the Kings, even by rebels, is a black humour all of its own.

Overall, Royle’s book is a good introduction to the period and a good account for the casual reader, but lacks the specifics to be more useful in an academic context.

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