Thank goodness for Game of Thrones. I think. Apparently it is inspired by the Wars of the Roses, drawing inspiration from the bloody, ruthless machinations of England’s power-brokers at the waning of the Middle Ages. Anyway, plenty of readers and watchers of George R.R. Martin’s work think that it is; what with that and BBC television’s recent The White Queen and She-Wolves series and (spot the marketing opportunity) the Shakespearean trilogy of, ahem, The Hollow Crown, undergraduates are queuing up for courses on this period of history. As I teach one, that has to be a good thing. Chuck ‘the Tudors’ into the title of your book and you’re on to a sure-fire winner.
There are all sorts of debates about the Wars of the Roses — over-mighty nobles, weak kings, bastard feudalism, personal greed or genuine devotion to the good of the commonweal, and the extent of the war’s disruption are some of the hoariest; but you will find little of that introspection here. Jones specialises in popular, straightforward narrative history, largely eschewing analysis and anything that gets in the way of his telling a rattling good story. His greatest skill as a historical writer is to somehow render sprawling, messy epochs such as this one into manageable, easily digestible matter; he is keenly tuned to what should be served up and what should be omitted. And he still finds rooms for the telling anecdote and vivid descriptive passage. It makes for an engrossing read and a thoroughly enjoyable introduction to the Lancastrian-Yorkist struggle.
While not engaging with the debates or mentioning any historians, Jones rightly attributes culpability for the political blood-letting of the period to the failure of leadership; and this means the catastrophic — and frequently catatonic — rule of Henry VI, a man born to be a bishop, not a king. Famously prudish — K.B. McFarlane has dismissed him as a ‘pious muff’ — Henry averted his eyes from topless dancers at court and his idea of a foul-mouthed tirade was ‘forsothe and forsothe’, neither of which is very Game of Thrones. Jones tells of how the king’s supporters had to stress the king’s saintly qualities to save something of his rather pathetic reputation, but he perhaps underestimates the significance of this. He writes: ‘There were two basic functions to kingship in the Middle Ages. The first was to uphold justice. The second was to fight wars.’ But there was also a third: that of sacerdos, priest. Jones shows that Henry was indeed hopeless at the first two but affirms his strength in the third role, as is attested by his magnificent legacy of King’s College chapel in Cambridge. But Jones, who frequently employs the term ‘vacuity’ for Henry, is aware that the anxious monarch was not always close to the angels; it is a shame that the lack of historians cited in the text precludes inclusion of Ronald Hutton’s great phrase that Henry was ‘a vicious wimp’.
A king who never experienced combat before the civil war (and only passively in it, while still managing to get wounded) and who suffered a massive and prolonged breakdown over his military losses in France, was clearly no match for the robust soldiers that challenged his throne. His antithesis, and nemesis, in every respect was the unapologetically sybaritic and sleazy Edward of York, a truly outstanding general and infamous ‘debauched lecher’, who was ‘fond of women, and it did not matter whether they were attractive or not’.
This equal-opportunity Casanova, who married for love, did not suffer fools gladly and, when king, became less forgiving than Henry. Edward personally prosecuted his useless, narcissistic lump of a brother George Duke of Clarence and had him murdered, perhaps by having him plunged headfirst into a vat of malmsey wine. Jones, who is adept at sharp character portrayal, calls Clarence ‘constitutionally vindictive’ and ‘a feckless nuisance and ingrate’. Edward’s usurping, non-avuncular brother Richard III was to take ruthlessness to new levels.
With characters such as Clarence and the endlessly ambitious kingmaker Warwick, we still have to make room for over-mighty nobles; after all, Edward was one himself. Jones keeps a clear, sceptical head when dealing with these, as when he intelligently criticises Humphrey, the ‘good’ Duke of Gloucester.
Greed and ambition were certainly rampant in the vacuum created by weak leadership, but so was fear: many of the selfish acts of the protagonists were prompted by raw self-preservation, as William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, found to his cost when factionalism ousted him from court and the king’s favour. Heading for exile in France, he was dispatched mid-channel by half-a-dozen strokes of a rusty sword. Two days later his ‘body was found dumped on Dover beach, with his head standing next to it on a pole’. George R.R. Martin certainly has plenty of material to work from.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £17. Tel: 08430 600033. Sean McGlynn’s books include Blood Cries Afar and By Fire and Sword.