The Wars of the Roses by John Gillingham (1981)

This book is 35 years old but is still, apparently, influential for the approach it takes to the subject. It amounted to an attack on the prevailing opinion about the wars and his critique of that attitude remains influential to this day.

Gillingham’s arguments are summed up in the brief but powerful opening chapter.

The prevailing view

The Middle Ages are conventionally dated as coming to an end around 1500. Therefore, the fact that England was subject to civil wars between various claimants to the crown from 1455 to 1485 was taken as indicating the general bloodiness of the whole 15th century, and an indication that the entire Plantagenet line of kings was worn out.

On this view the wars of the roses represent the ‘decline’ of the Middle Ages into chaos and bloodshed, reaching a nadir with the short brutal rule of King Richard III (1483-1485), whose injustice and harshness prompted yet another rebellion, this time led by a Welsh nobleman, Henry Tudor, which culminated in the decisive Battle of Bosworth, where Richard was killed and his army defeated.

The victorious Henry – crowned Henry VII – established the Tudor line of monarchs which proceeded through Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, Edward VI, to the glorious reign of good Queen Elizabeth I, marking the transition from an exhausted medieval dynasty to the ‘early modern’ period.

Gillingham’s counter-arguments

The myth of periods Historians know they shouldn’t divide history into periods, but they do. They shouldn’t because time is a seamless continuum and dividing it up into chunks is highly misleading.

Defining periods has two drawbacks: having defined a block of time as the ‘so-and-so period’, the temptation is to give this random era a beginning, middle and end. And ends, in the organic world, tend to be the result of age and decline. Thus the recurring vice of historians: inventing periods and then spending careers accounting for their rise and fall.

The myth of the middle ages But these are totally misleading metaphors. In reality there were no ‘middle ages’. The phrase was invented in the ‘Renaissance’ to characterise the period between the peak of the ancient Roman world the revival of learning which Renaissance authors were very aware of in their own time. But for a generation or more scholars have been fighting the ‘myth of the middle ages’ in all kinds of ways, for example by explaining that Rome didn’t ‘decline and fall’ as fast or as thoroughly as the myth demands. This is the thrust of Chris Wickham’s magisterial study, The Inheritance of Rome which shows the legislative, linguistic, religious and administrative legacy of Rome continuing for centuries after the last emperor (450), strongly enduring into the era of Charlemagne (crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800).

The myth of violence Moreover, England wasn’t a specially violent or bloodthirsty place in the later 15th century. The reverse. All the evidence is that England was unusually peaceful among comparably sized European states. Gillingham gives a lot of evidence for this.

  • A long explanation of military technology shows how the widespread development of powerful cannon led to the equal development of fortifications which could resist them, specifically the creation of bulwarks sticking out from the curtain walls of town or castle walls, to be used as platforms to bombard attacking forces. Almost all European towns and cities built them because the continent existed in a state of almost continuous warfare; there are hardly any in England because they weren’t needed.
  • Foreign observers commented on the peacefulness of England and pointed out one simple reason: the Channel. All nations in continental Europe were liable to be attacked at any moment by any other. Nobody could attack England. Raids there were, for example on the Cinque Ports on the south coast – but these merely prove Gillingham’s point because these were the only places which built ‘modern’ defensive walls. The entire rest of England didn’t need them.

On the contrary, Gillingham adduces evidence that the wages of labourers were at their highest point during the period. And – something he doesn’t himself mention but which I know independently – the period from 1450 saw the flourishing of the late medieval style of parish church design known as ‘Perpendicular’ – new, larger-than-ever churches built across the country and representing the wealth that comes from economic and social stability. It was the heyday of medieval church building.

So far from being the bloodbath which later tradition made it out to be, Gillingham in fact pithily sums up the period of disorder which later generations called the wars of the roses as merely ‘a few disturbances of the aristocratic establishment’ (p.11).

The Tudor myth

So why is there this myth in the first place?

Because when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III he commissioned writers to prove that he was a hero, restoring order and peace to a nation brought to its knees by incompetent rulers, weltering in blood and chaos, all leading to the acme of evil – the wicked king Henry overthrew, black Richard III, the evil hunchback.

His son (Henry VIII) perpetuated this version of history and so did his sons and daughters (Edward VI, bloody Mary, Elizabeth I). Chroniclers, teachers, historians – everything they wrote and published using the power of the new printing presses (which began to spread precisely during Henry VII’s reign) was first vetted and approved by government censors. And the government used the power of the press to promulgate the Official Version of a state brought to the brink of chaos and redeemed by the heroic Tudor dynasty.

100 years later Shakespeare – whose history plays are sometimes credited with being the biggest single influence on the English’s view of their own history – sealed and cemented the myth in the series of six ‘history’ plays he wrote about Henry IV, the hero Henry V, and the sad decline of Henry VI (the incompetent, possibly mentally defective king under whom the wars broke out).

Later historians accepted the official Tudor myth at face value and the story of chaos climaxing in the wickedest king in our island history was repeated over and again.

Only in the 1980s and since, has a revisionist version of the period taken hold: one that doesn’t represent it as a period of decline and fall into inevitable violence, but of surprising peace and stability upset only by dynastic quarrels right at the top of society which had surprisingly little impact except on the poor individuals press-ganged into fighting or in whose vicinity battles – generally quite small-scale battles – took place.

Full of meat and ideas

Lots of history books are full of dates, events and pernickety interpretations of them, but Gillingham’s book is riveting for the way it defines the big issues and tackles them head on. It is packed with logical arguments and insights.

It is, for example, fascinating to read that the biggest problem for any armed force in the field was provisions. Even living off the land was only a viable option for a limited period. In a war of foreign conquest part of the process of cowing the opposition was ravaging and destroying the land. But in a civil war, especially when you were claiming the throne and looking for people’s loyalty, the opposite was true – you wanted to present yourself as the enforcer of peace, law and stability. You wanted to rein in your followers and limit damage as much as possible.

These reasons explain why the Hundred Years War – fought mainly in France a generation or two earlier – and the other continental wars of this period, often settled down into long and destructive sieges, with land around the besieged cities ravaged and laid waste. Whereas the Wars of the Roses are characterised by the opposite, an unusual number of pitched battles, battles which didn’t last long and were usually decisive. Neither side wanted to destroy the very kingdom they were fighting to inherit.

This isn’t the place to summarise the actual wars (there were three distinct periods of violent conflict with periods of peace and manouvering between them). You can read summaries of the events on Wikipedia or any number of other websites. Suffice to say that in his opening chapters Gillingham’s book gives a host of fascinating, logical and persuasive arguments for rethinking our understanding of the entire period.

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