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Separating the history from the myths

The Wars of the Roses: Peace and Conflict in Fifteenth-Century England - John Gillingham

Thanks in no small measure to William Shakespeare, the Wars of the Roses looms large in the English historical imagination. For many, its factional conflicts between various noble families serves as a demarcation between the England of the Middle Ages and the era of the Tudors that began with Henry VII's victory over Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field. Yet at John Gillingham argues, these events and their legacy is often misunderstood in terms of their scope and their legacy. As he demonstrates in this book, the wars themselves were not some epoch-ending bloodbath but a series of factional fights that were not atypical of English politics during that era.


Gillingham sees the Wars of the Roses not as one conflict but as three distinct, though related, ones. The first was that spawned by the failings of Henry VI as king, who was unable to maintain England's position in France and who proved equally inept in his ability to govern at home. Henry's rule was challenged by Richard, Duke of York, who had served as Protector of the Realm during Henry's breakdown in the autumn of 1453. Though Richard died in the open warfare that resulted from this struggle, his son Edward captured Henry and replaced him as king. The second conflict arose from the discontent of Edward's supporter Richard Neville, the earl of Warwick, who, disappointed in his expectation of ruling England form behind Edward's throne, rose up in rebellion. While Warwick succeeded in temporarily restoring Henry to the throne, the Lancastrians suffered a crippling defeat at the battle of Tewkesbury, with the death of Henry's soon followed by the murder of Henry himself. This may have been the end of the wars but for the "murderous ambition" of Edward's brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who after Edward's death in 1483 used his position as regent to seize power from Edward's son, only to die in battle at Bosworth Field two years later.

All of this Gillingham describes in an efficient narrative that is candid in its limitations. He makes it clear that there is much about the era that remains a mystery to us, as the limited sources available even make it difficult to know much about some of the famous battles of the period beyond their outcome. Gillingham goes far in filling in the gaps, using reasonable supposition supported by a solid command of the politics and the military science of the era. His narrative itself is reasonably straightforward, though it is hampered by the large number of names involved, most of which are not distinguished by any efforts to define them as persons for the reader. Nevertheless, his book serves as a solid overview of the Wars of the Roses, one that succeeds in sifting the reality from the myths and legends that have contributed to our misunderstandings of the conflict and its significance to English history.