Book Review: The Wars of the Roses by John Ashdown Hill.

A very useful, very readable work. Fresh, believable and wise.”

Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing; Reprint edition (15 May 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1445660350

Vital stats: This is a handy paperback of eminently readable length. As you might expect the publishers have designed the cover with a Rose motif, it’s understated and tasteful, quite a nice thing. There are 16 pages of images with an average of 3 images per page mostly concerned with giving faces to names, some being more convincing than others. There are in addition 11 family trees intersepreced throughout the reading pages, with 4 additional black and white illustrations and one map which is of the Low Countries.

Review: This is going to be a review of a review because Ashdown-Hill has written a book that is predominantly concerned with investigating and clarifying the story rather than offering a strait narrative. Having said that it’s not a dry book, it’s well written and flows fairly well, though it’s main objective is not necessarily a seamless flow.

To skip along to the end where the author has inserted a conclusion to wrap up, he quotes the wise assertions of the Tunisian Historian Ibn Khaldun, who highlighted the 3 great pitfalls of writing history. 1: The tendancy to be partisan. 2: The inclination to write in order to please. And 3: The difficulty of placing an event in its proper context. Herodotus is mentioned also because he proliferated so many myths alongside his history.

Now although Herodotus’ tall tales have been pointed out as useful by writers like Tom Holland, there is no doubt that historians with ears for a good yarn have a great weakness for inserting said yarn into more subtler, factual tapestries. This adulteration makes for often excellent storytelling, but obviously confuses the picture, and pulls focus like a cameraman filming a modern period drama. Although such fables can tell informed people much about the time in which they were written, they are easy to be taken at face value by casual readers and newcomers.

It was wise of the author to include these rules at the end of his work, otherwise people like me might have been tempted to read his work in their glare, instead of pondering retroactively, but nevertheless I have concluded that he has stayed within the lines he has set himself and therefore has written a very useful, very readable work on this long and confusing period of English History.

With these confines in mind the author had set issues to address in this book, he lays them out in the beginning by way of introducing the subject and it’s common conceptions. The first being to challenge the very name on the cover. Tying in well with the myth spinning of Herodotus, Ashdown-Hill examines what evidence there is for the now fairly well debunked notion that each side neatly aligned themselves by choosing their favoured colour of flower. No I don’t really mean that! (See what I did? I spun a myth).

Anyway, Hill asserts, rather reasonably, that there was no broad factions that subscribed to the badge of one or the other flower, least of all the house of York. The use of white Roses in this sense was far from General and would have been downright confusing if it had been to a medieval mind, while there is some evidence to suggest the main branch of the house of York, and by that I mean the Duke himself, (much like the Prince of Wales’ Feathers), associated itself with a white Rose there was nothing particularly clannish about the badge. On the other hand there is a slightly stronger case for a Red Rose being a motif of the House of Lancaster, but not so much that one would see the sign in the 15th century and immediately associate it with that line.

So although there is some truth to the idea that late on in the story Roses became a somewhat common identification of either the house of York or Lancaster, it really wasn’t a hard and fast thing until Tudor times which is when, hey look at that! Shakespeare appeared. This discussion rather leads on to challenging the idea that the “Wars of the Roses” were the first true English civil war. This is easier to challenge than the Roses. Firstly note the use of the plural “Wars”, then he leads us to consider the fact that foreign troops were commonly deployed by both sides. Then we observe inside the context of the struggle that the houses of York and Lancaster were only two of the contending parties that ended up vying for power, with the houses of Somerset, Beaufort and to some degree Warwick entering the fray. In addition to the fact that politically the struggle was often about who got to control the King rather than who sat on the throne.

Finally we can easily see that this was a series of Wars, and indeed personal struggles without much relation to the government of the country, that continued on intermittently for almost 200 years, with large gaps and conflicting motives perceivable throughout that time. Even if that wasn’t enough there is the simple fact that the Wars were in reality little different from some of the other dynastic conflicts that had been ravaging England since the days of King John I.

The latter part of the book investigates why the Wars of the Roses is such a tangled web of confusing legend and in some cases fantasy. The answer arrived at is essentially boiled down to Tudor propaganda. Why? Ashdwon-Hill lays out a case that Henry Tudor illegally usurped the throne by inventing a lineage connecting him to the royal line. After he won he established himself by ensuring his version of the story got told. Interestingly we find out that the last claimants to the throne (though they never really pressed it) through the old Lancaster/York line were mainland Europeans from Burgundy, Portugal and Spain, meaning as the author wittily points out that the last battle of the Wars of the Roses, which indeed started in its floral form with the rise of Henry, was fought in 1588 when Phillip II sent his Armada against Elizabeth I.

The thing that lets medieval history down is the whole lineage discussion that inevitably accompanies any introduction of any character worth mentioning. The politics of the time were so impossibly linked to who you where, who you married and who you and your spouse’s parents were related to that it is incredibly easy to get bogged down before you even start. There’s no really easy way of getting around the fact that this is all important for understanding dynastic conflicts of this time. Just as it’s important but generally quite dull to read about all the factions and politics of the ancient Romans and Greeks. It interferes with the people and the story and there’s no getting around it, 11 family trees are included in this book which makes it unavoidably drag at the start.

One might also be tempted to say that in the author’s coverage of Richard III he is somewhat gentle. Now this issue is a contested one, and Ashdown-Hill does a splendid job of de-mythologising Richard of York from the monster of legend, convincingly arguing that there is as hard a case for his innocence in the murders of the princes and several other executions, as there is for his guilt. Neverthless I believe the author falls prey to a little of the partisanship that Ibn Khaldun warned us about, when he dismisses Richard’s involvement in some of the deeds associated with him, such as the execution of his brother without much discussion. However I appreciate the fresh look that scholars like the author are taking with Richard, I especially like the practical and believable scenarios that are reconstructed for the last “Plantagenet”, far removed from the drama of avarice and tyranny (at least in so far as one can in this period) that are associated with him.

Stress is placed on two other elements, and they are quite crucial to understanding how the balance shifted in the rise of the house of York. First the author is adamant on the legality of Edward IV’s first marriage to Eleanor Talbot, and the therefore illegal union with Elizabeth Woodville, who he asserts was probably responsible for more or at least as many political murders as Richard III ever was, and highlights the well known schism caused by Edward IV’s obsession with the family of his second wife which ultimately brought the Yorkist dynasty down.



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