416 pages, Viking, ISBN-13: 978-0670026678
The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones is a detailed, gripping exploration of the people and events that changed the very course of English history. While most books related to the Wars of the Roses begin and end with the families of Lancaster and York and their bloody battles for power behind the feeble and inept King Henry VI, Dan Jones instead begins his tale with the life and reign of King Henry V, the victory at Agincourt, and the King’s marriage to Catherine of Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France, called the Beloved and the Mad (both for good reason). Over the course of his book, Jones make a pivotal point: that the Wars of the Roses was not caused simply by the families and supporters of Lancaster vs. York and their desire for the Crown, but at it’s very core, the very essence of the Wars of the Roses was the weak, inefficient, mentally challenged rule of King Henry VI. It was interesting to learn that throughout Henry VI’s minority, the men around the throne were able to govern with relative assuredness and stability; although there were clashes in politics and personal feelings of betrayal and distrust, these did not yet spill over into the fierce battles that became so well ingrained with the Wars of the Roses. It was only when Henry VI reached his maturity and could rule England in his own right that things started to go so very wrong, not only for the King but for the country.
Jones not only details the major battles that took place during the Wars of the Roses; he also explores the political and social atmosphere in England and Europe at the time to give the reader a deeper and more fulfilling understanding of the events that lay behind the Wars of the Roses while also going into greater detail exploring the sometimes lesser-known events and political movements that culminated in such dramatic and costly battles. It was these political movements that seemed to happen behind the scenes that were the driving forces behind so many of the decisions and actions of the Wars of the Roses and it was fascinating to explore these events in greater detail. I also greatly appreciated that Jones did not end his book with Henry Tudor’s victory over Richard III at the battle of Bosworth. Most books on the Wars of the Roses tend to limit their discussions of the events to this pivotal moment when the Tudors claimed the English crown, for while it is true that through the marriage of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York the family trees of Lancaster and York were united, this was not the end of the Wars of the Roses. Throughout Henry VII’s life and even during the rule of his son Henry VIII the Tudors faced multiple threats, or what they perceived as threats to their rule. I savored the fact that Jones included a brief overview of the rule of the Tudors and how their reign ultimately brought an end to the catastrophic Wars of the Roses.
Jones’ prose is engaging and descriptive. His writing breathes life and meaning into events that occurred six centuries before, adding a rich layer of detail to the central storyline. His explanation of everyday events, such as life at court, is as equally engaging as the descriptions of battles. Jones’ writing on hand-to-hand combat is particularly vivid and, at times, uncomfortable to read. If there is any fault in The War of the Roses, it is the book’s assumption prospective readers will have an intimate knowledge of English geography; as an aid, Jones included three black and white maps of England and France as well as family trees for the Lancaster, York and Tudor blood lines, but for all that more maps would have been nice. Given the number of people and places involved in this story, readers will want to routinely consult both references. Tudor victory and the death of Richard III at Bosworth Field officially concluded the War of the Roses; however, the lessons of that era are eerily apropos to the current state of global politics. In particular, the reign of Henry VI aptly demonstrates the inherent dangers of weak national leaders and rabidly divided central governments. Equally enlightening are Jones’ reflections on the propaganda machines heavily utilized throughout the conflict to “sell” individual claimant’s legitimacy to seize the English crown. That lesson alone more than justifies the purchase of Jones’ book. So, place a chair by the fire and prepare for an enjoyable night’s reading, but fellow reader, be warned: after consuming just a few pages of The War of the Roses, the political struggles and historical consequences of the formerly distant 15th Century may not feel so removed from our own time.