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The Week in Books: The Wars of the Roses – Politics and Constitution in England 1437-1509

When I lived in the UK one of my favorite things to do was go to Cambridge where I’d attend evensong service at King’s, and then go to the Cambridge University Press bookstore on the corner of King’s Parade and the market street, and I’d buy a book that made me look eminently intelligent and highbrow, and I’d feel very smug about myself.  Then I would promptly put the book in my bag, go to Borders and buy chick-lit which I would actually read.

So, Christwarsoftherosesine Carpenter’s Wars of the Roses – Politics and Constitution in England 1437-1509 has been sitting on my shelf for ages, untouched and unread.  But I’m trying to get rid of all my physical books, and so I’ve been trying to read everything that is stockpiled and rehome the ones I don’t need any longer.

This book is a monster.  Really it’s a textbook that goes deeper into the constitutional crisis that became known as the Wars of the Roses, and it’s not an introductory title for those who are new to the period.  It doesn’t tell the story of the Wars of the Roses, but goes into the constitutional moves and the nitty gritty of how each side used Parliament.  The entire first chapter discusses at length the historiography and sources, and is interesting in looking at the ways that each history was viewed through time, but it also requires a bit of knowledge about the time period being discussed (for example, there is a lot of discussion about how the Whig party viewed the Tudors in the mid 19th century, and knowing very little as I do about the Whig’s, much of this was Greek for me.

If you don’t know much about the Wars of the Roses (and you missed The White Queen) here’s a brief synopsis.  Way back in the 14th century Edward III had too many sons, and they went on to have a lot of children.  One of them, Richard II, became king at a very young age, and then there was an overthrow, and we wind up with many people having a good and valid claim to the throne of England.  Henry V was incredibly popular because he kicked France’s ass in the Hundred Year’s War (the famous English longbow won the day in the Battle of Agincourt).  But then Henry VI comes along and is a weak child when he becomes King, can’t keep the land in France, and then, to top it all off, he goes crazy.  I’m not actually sure what the professional diagnosis would have been, but he completely checked out for several years at a time.  He was also incredibly pious and it seemed like he cared more about praying than about being a good king and winning legendary battles.  He also married a very unpopular queen.  So people start to get upset.  Along comes the Duke of York saying, “hey now, I’ve got an equal claim to the throne and I’d be way better.”

Thus began the Wars of the Roses, which was really a series of battles and uprisings.  The crown would swing back and forth for decades, with periods of relative peace for a good long while before the rebellions would spring up again.  When Henry VII beat Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, it was by no means certain that he had ended the dynastic struggle of the past 50 years.  In part, that was why his son, Henry VIII, was obsessed with having a male heir; he needed to ensure the smooth succession.  There were still pretenders to the throne even during Henry VIII’s reign, and his father, Henry VII, had to deal witbloodandrosesh many more (including a pretender claiming to be a presumed-dead cousin who had everyone fooled).

If you’re looking for an overview of the battles, the uprisings, the King’s and an analysis of who killed the Princes in the Tower (I believe it was Margaret Beaufort, in case you’re wondering), this isn’t the book for you.  If you’re looking for some dry parliamentary procedures to geek out on, then I highly recommend it.    If you do want a narrative overview, I highly recommend Helen Castor’s Blood and Roses, which is beautifully written.

This is such an interesting time period to me – the end of medievalism and the rise of a Modern England would come after England sorted itself out, and I love the different perspectives that each type of book brings to the dialog.