The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors

The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors, by Dan Jones

I had such a good time reading Dan Jones’ earlier volume, The Plantagenets, that I just couldn’t wait for the sequel! As soon as the book arrived, I pushed aside a huge backlog pile of reading material and settled down with The Wars of the Roses. Anticipation was high!

And, for most of the book, I was not disappointed.

In a startling move, Jones begins his story at the end – the execution of Margaret Pole, a horrific event that Jones characterizes as the final episode of the Wars of the Roses. And then, having placed the reader in a dark and alien world, Jones plunges us into one of the most confusing and dangerous times in English history.

As Jones tells the story of England’s descent into civil war, we meet no great heroes and no great villains, merely fallible men doing their best to deal with the extraordinary tragedy that was 15th century England. There could be no happy ending for a land “ruled” by a totally incapable and incompetent king.

Jones is excellent at creating a balanced and nuanced account of events and their causes, while still maintaining the sense of uncertainty and confusion felt by the participants and bystanders of the time. In addition to a lively and clear sorting-out of a confusing period of English history, Jones sprinkles interesting analyses of policies and personalities throughout. I particularly appreciated his discussion of the political considerations that might have added to Edward IV’s appreciation of Elizabeth Woodville’s undoubted physical charms.

Then I ran smack into Dan Jones’ version of Richard III.

Richard is, admittedly, a fraught topic and, like everybody else, I have a particular point of view. Which I regard as largely irrelevant. When I read history, I am not looking for a confirmation of my own opinions (how boring is that!). I am looking for careful consideration and analysis of the sources, and a consistent interpretation. Jones’ Richard does not meet the criteria.

The young Richard is described as an able (even “brilliant”) soldier, loyal and trustworthy. As king, he is “bright and decisive,” generous, sympathetic, with inclinations “toward the principles of justice and fairness.” Richard’s dilemma is laid out clearly: “… it would have been a profound betrayal of the [house of York’s] own history to have allowed parvenus like Rivers and Dorset to step in and control the kingdom while the only duke of the blood royal stood by and did nothing.” And yet, as Protector, “The minute he should lose his grip on the power he had taken he was potentially as vulnerable as those whom he had displaced.”

Dan Jones tells us that Richard’s solution was to declare his nephews illegitimate, usurp the throne and murder the boys. That judgment, whether or not I agree with it, I can accept as a plausible interpretation.

What made me uneasy, however, was an unreasonable subtext of evil menace. Richard’s consideration of marrying his own niece is characterized as a rumor. Yet, Jones tell us Richard’s councillors did not warn him that the rumors were harmful and needed to be stopped. Instead, they were “disgusted” by his plans and warned Richard not to carry through. Did Richard’s councilors actually believe he would so jeopardize the status of his potential heirs? Jones never bothers to explain. Richard’s coronation, 89 days after Edward IV’s death, is described as occurring “with almost indecent haste.” Henry VII was crowned 69 days after Richard’s death, yet Jones implies Henry’s timetable was almost leisurely. And on it went. All items were small, but the undercurrent was constant and the effect jarring.

What is particularly disconcerting is that Jones ends his book in this way:
“… the fact is that the Tudors did win. And like all historical winners, they reserved the right to tell their story: a story that has endured to this day.”

All the more reason for any writer to look at Tudor historical sources with some skepticism. Jones, alas, does not.

Once Henry VII sits on the throne, its onto a whirlwind summary of the last of the Yorkists. This finale contained far more confusing information than necessary to make his point – that the continuing Yorkist threat receded as they were, one by one, killed. It was not a wrap-up that left the reader confident in their understanding of events.

If The Wars of the Roses had ended with the death of Edward IV, I would happily have awarded five stars. Unfortunately, while the section on Richard III is very short (at thirty-four pages, it is exactly one-tenth of the text), its uneven tone left an unpleasant aftertaste.

That said, even with the stars reduced to four, I look forward to Jones’ next book.